LAST WEEKEND saw worldwide ceremonies observing International Holocaust Memorial Day, including a commemoration at Dublin’s Mansion House, attended by President Michael D Higgins.
The Memorial Day was officially designated in 2005 by the United Nations and marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, on January 27 1945, by soldiers of the Red Army.
The hellish regime of Auschwitz provides the backdrop to a thought-provoking new play by Galway-based author Bernard Field which receives its premiere in the Town Hall studio next week.
Zeitgeist, which is performed by Haw Theatre, portrays an encounter between a journalist and an elderly Nazi scientist who carried out medical experiments in Auschwitz and remains brazenly unrepentant about his work there. At one point he recalls working alongside Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous ‘Angel of Death’, and describes him as “the kindest of colleagues…Dr Mengele was devoted to science. I can only say the very best things about him.”
The scientist, Ludwig, presents an arresting study in contrasts, on the one hand delighting in his butterfly collection and the music of Schubert while on the other maintaining a shockingly matter-of-fact view of his duties at Auschwitz.
Over an afternoon coffee, Zeitgeist author Bernard Field – who also takes the role of the Interviewer in the play – talked about his new drama, beginning with a description of how he was first drawn to the subject.
“In 1998 I read an article in The Guardian, which was reprinted from Der Spiegel, which was an interview with this elderly Nazi who’d worked at Auschwitz,” he explains. “The interview caused quite a stir at the time in Germany mainly because of the man’s attitude to that whole era.
“I was fascinated by him, he jumped out immediately at me as a character. Initially I wrote a monologue based on the interview then I left it for quite a few years and it was only really last year that I took it out again and started working on it, and found some fresh ideas for how to formulate it for the stage.
“All the factual details in the script are taken verbatim from the original interview, I just fictionalised the character around this interview.”
Field expands on the character of Ludwig.
“There’s not even a hint of ruefulness with him about what he was involved in, he has all these rationalisations about it which can be very persuasive if you lose track for a minute of what the end-product of their activities were.
“He’s a fascinating character. The other thing that interested me about him is that we tend to see people like that as aberrations or monsters and I wonder sometimes in doing that are we forgetting that they are also human beings, so I wanted to show that other side to him, to broaden out the perspective instead of just showing this hardcore monster with very unapologetic views about the Holocaust.”
There is a third character in the play, Ludwig’s wife, Frieda, and his relationship with her provides an intriguing, and shifting dramatic strand within the plot. At first they seem to be a typically devoted old couple but as the play unfolds we start to see darker aspects of their partnership and history together.
“In terms of putting the drama together it’s necessary to build up some sort of sympathy for the guy,” Field says. “If you just come into the theatre to see an old Nazi you fold your arms and reject him immediately so I wanted to give him aspects that are recognisably human - like his relationship with his wife - and against that background to give these gradual revelations of this monster.
“I hope Zeitgeist raises questions. One thing that’s interesting about it is that even though two of the protagonists are very old people it’s still packed full of action, there are a lot of surprising moments in the play.”
Hugh Kirwan from Kinvara plays Ludwig, Fiona Kelly plays Frieda, and direction is by Rae Visser who recently directed Mark O’Halloran’s Mary Motorhead.
“I’m very happy with the calibre of people I have working on the show,” says Field. “This is Haw Teatre’s third production after Last Train to Holyhead and The Early Hours, and our work so far has been well received. I think we’re establishing a bit of a reputation for doing good stuff, plays that people remember and that make them interested in coming back to see the next show.”
Zeitgeist runs at the Town Hall Theatre studio from Tuesday to Saturday February 11 at 8.30pm nightly. Tickets are €12/10 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie